Whether you're new to homeschooling or a veteran home educator, sooner or later the dreaded "S" word will come up: socialization. As many homeschoolers can attest, one of the easiest ways to get social exposure for both children and parents is to get involved in the homeschooling community via support groups and cooperative programs, also known as "co-ops." Finding a support group or co-op can be easy, but figuring out which is right for you can sometimes be a bit more difficult. Often the best answer isn't one or the other – it may be both!

Support groups run the gamut from loose networking lists used to share resources about local, state, and regional activities and pending legislation that can affect homeschoolers, all the way up to exclusive groups that are formed specifically to connect and encourage families that share certain religious, political, or educational beliefs. Support groups can be small, local affairs that only reach out to citizens within a certain radius from a town all the way up to national associations with thousands of members. Support groups can be incredibly well-organized or thrown together in a moment – some even spring up in a day simply because a person has taken the time to create an online group through Yahoo! Groups, AOL or other Internet-based communities.

On the other hand, co-op ventures require more organization and planning as they do not exist simply to disseminate information. Cooperative programs require a group of individuals who are willing and able to teach a variety of lessons or skills to the students involved. You may find a loosely knit co-op that only meets monthly and has a general, lightly planned program for their meeting such as one or two parents who sign up to play with toddlers and babies, while a few other parents break off into age-based or interest-based groups with the older kids. Other co-ops meet weekly or even several days a week with a schedule based on the traditional school year calendar and lessons planned months in advance. You may even encounter co-ops that hire professional teachers to plan and teach; this is often helpful for high school aged students who are seeking Advanced Placement (AP) and other more difficult courses, if none of the parents involved are trained in the required area of study.

The first step to finding a good fit for your family is to analyze your beliefs and educational methods. If you are a member of a certain church you may find a group with shared faith that will be a good option, but it's not always an instant connection if everyone uses varied educational methods. You may find your "relaxed homeschool" family feels lost when surrounded by families who only use the Classical method of education. Families who use unit studies to involve their children from birth through high school may be at a loss in a group that focuses only on a curriculum from a specific company whether there are other shared beliefs or not.

Additionally, some groups will cater to a specific community – a sub-set, as it were – within the homeschooling community at large. The best part of being a homeschooler is that you decide what is best for your kids and for you, as the parent-teacher. Remember, you don't have to limit yourself to just one group or co-op! If there are several groups in your area, give each of them a try. You may find that they fulfill different needs, creating an ideal overall network for you.

If you don't know where to start looking for a group, try Googling the word "homeschool" alongside your town or city. If you've been looking for a group but haven't yet found the perfect fit for your family's needs, don't give up! Many a fantastic support group or co-op has been founded because a mom or dad didn't find just what they were looking for so they sat down and created it themselves. Don't hesitate to spread the word about what you're looking for – a great group may just come to you.

Melonie Kennedy is a military wife, homeschooling mom and freelance writer. To learn more about her educational adventures, email her at ravenwrites74@yahoo.com.

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